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How 'Sons of Anarchy' Revived the Motorcycle Business: 'We Basically Saved Harley'

Motorcycle fanatics Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and George Clooney now share the road with a growing cult of industry players as Harley sales jump 6 percent.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

At a remote industrial shipyard deep in Los Angeles' underbelly, Jax, Bobby, Chibs and Tig of the fictional motorcycle club SAMCRO hunch over the handlebars of their Harleys and skid across the dirt after a shady business deal goes awry in the hit FX series Sons of Anarchy.

Pull back the cameras and there are two sets of motorcycles on the scene: The hogs the actors ride in character as they torch, beat and generally brutalize rival gang members; and the bikes the actors ride in real life, which are, like the souls of the characters they play, entirely black.

PHOTOS: George Clooney, Brad Pitt With Their Motorcycles

Outside each Star Waggon trailer is a Harley, including Kim Coates' (Tig) Wide Glide with a purple, gun-shaped drawing on the fender that co-star Charlie Hunnam (Jax) jokes "was done in nail polish." Two trailers down, Hunnam's own Dyna Super Glide is far less pristine, with rusted exhaust and mud-splattered fenders.

The long-running popularity of Sons of Anarchy, which commences its seventh season in September, has been a godsend for the motorcycle industry, which was hard-hit by the financial crisis. U.S. sales, which topped 1 million units in 2007, clawed back to 465,783 units in 2013, which nevertheless reflected a 1.4 percent increase over 2012. (California accounts for 10 percent of the market.) Sons of Anarchy has been especially beneficial for Harley; the show has helped make the brand hip with younger riders to the point that Harley now leads the 18-to-34 market. (The maker provides the motorcycles to the show and has a deal with Marvel that has placed bikes in films including Iron Man 3.) Last year, Harley's U.S. sales were up more than 6 percent over 2012.

"We basically saved Harley," says Sons of Anarchy co-star Mark Boone Jr. (Bobby).

Meanwhile, all of Hollywood is rife with A-listers who double as serious cyclists, most famously George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Ewan McGregor and Bill Mac; Parenthood's Dax Shepard, who frequently takes to Twitter to wax poetic about his Ducati Multistrada; The Hunger Games' Josh Hutcherson, who is paparazzi bait whenever he takes to the streets on his Moto Guzzi; and Jared Leto, who, when he isn't fronting his rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars, rides a Ducati Monster.

PHOTOS: 'Sons of Anarchy' Stars Pose With Their Harleys

The action is just as fast and furious on Hollywood's business and creative side, where a core of devoted cyclists turn riding from Holmby Hills to Century City into a trip down Thunder Road: Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter; producer and manager Peter Safran; Bones creator Hart Hanson; Discovery Channel producer Jason Hervey (2008 Harley Softail Deluxe); and former CAA lit agent and House of Cards producer Josh Donen (Ducati Pikes Peak Multistrada). And uber indie-producer Megan Ellison (Her, American Hustle) has been said to ride a Harley to meetings. "I like riding because it clears my head," says Modern Family creator Steve Levitan, who rides a Harley-Davidson Street Bob. "Because your iPhone stays in your pocket, you really feel like you're getting away. I like the peace of mind of knowing that in case of an earthquake, I can hop on a bike and get to my family -- no matter how bad the traffic."

Steve Marks, a manager with Evolution Management, rides a BMW 1200 GS with a group of industry veterans, including NATPE president Rod Perth, United Talent's Chris Day and, on occasion, clients such as actor-director Heath Cullens.

STORY: 'Sons of Anarchy' Wraps Most-Watched Season With 5.2 Million Viewers

"It doesn't necessarily help me sign a client, but there's a special bond because we go places and spend quality time together," says Marks. "Every time [Cullens] comes in, we spend half the time talking about his career and half the time talking about his bike."

Motorcycling Hollywood players are as different as the bikes they choose to straddle, but they all have one thing in common: A desire to experience the freedom of the open road on two wheels, regardless of its potentially career-ending risks.

"If you go back to celebrities who rode motorcycles in the '40s, like Humphrey Bogart, and in the '50s and '60s, with Elvis Presley and Steve McQueen, and you then look at all the stars riding today, motorcycling is something they see as an expression of themselves," says David A. Morris, author of Motostars: Celebrities and Motorcycles. "They feel that no one is looking at them as a celebrity anymore. They're bikers. It's not George Clooney. It's George, the guy who rides the Indian."

Keegan Allen, the 24-year-old who plays ripped-ab bad boy Toby Cavanaugh on ABC Family's drama Pretty Little Liars, rides a Harley V-Rod daily. Riding, Allen says, "makes me more present in my work. When you're on a motorcycle, you can't think about anything else. There's always a sense when you're on a motorcycle that the world around you is out to get you. It feels the same way in the entertainment business." Not to mention, says Hunnam, "the practical element of being on a bike and no longer being crucified in traffic constantly."

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A-list L.A. riders also have the money to spend on exclusivity and status -- specifically anything Harley-Davidson, custom, European or obscure. "They want something that no one else will have," says Morris, which is why top names in Hollywood own a disproportionate number of Ducati's limited-to-500 Superleggeras ($65,000) and Desmosedicis ($72,500), just 1,500 of which were made. Cruise, Pitt and Jay Leno own one. Cruise also owns the even more exclusive $92,000 Vyrus 985 C3 4V Italian sport bike and a $50,000 Confederate Motorcycles Hellcat.

Motorcycles in movies are themselves uptrending. Cruise's passion translates onscreen, where he has ridden everything from a Kawasaki sport bike in Top Gun to a Ducati Hypermotard in Knight and Day. Chris Evans will ride a new Harley Street in the next installment of Captain America, and last summer's Kick-Ass 2 featured Chloe "Hit-Girl" Moretz donning a purple cape on a color-matched Ducati Panigale.

Even animated films are getting into the act -- Madagascar 3 had a circus bear doing stunts on a virtual Ducati Hypermotard.